Tasting Note: A Burgundian Minervois? Anne Gros

From the author: "THe vinyards are all ar...

The vineyards are all around the village of Minerve. Minerve gave its name to the Minervois, a region and a wine appellation” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a wine from the formidable Burgundian husband and wife team of Anne Gros and Jean-Paul Tollot. But this wine isn’t from Burgundy, it’s from the Languedoc’s Minervois appellation. I suspect that a Minervois has never tasted like this before.

There are so many pieces to this puzzle of a wine, that I suppose I should just deal with the tasting notes first. Later, I can talk about all of the perplexing peripheral issues this Minervois presents. I have to say right up front, this is a wine that raises many more questions than it can possibly answer.

2009 Domaine Anne Gros & Jean-Paul Tollot, “Les Fontanilles” Minervois 

This blend of  GrenacheSyrah, Carignan and Cinsault is dark, almost black in color. On the nose, there is some liqueur of cherry and raspberry fruit, but this wine isn’t giving off much in aroma. In the mouth, the wine is soft, very soft, much softer than anything I’ve tasted in quite some time. But the there is considerable fresh, red cherry fruit, and deeper black fruits, particularly the deep black cherry I associate with a riper premier cru, or grand cru Burgundy. The significant fruit of Les Fontanilles is accented with faint notes of smoke, thyme and a touch of black pepper. The mouth-feel is round and supple, but not the slightest bit heavy, and it has a very creamy texture. This wine has a remarkable delicacy, and I keep getting a watermelon-like fruit, right on the surface of this wine. It’s pretty, very pretty in fact, and surprisingly it has tremendous balance. It is really quite delicious, and just calls out for a second glass.  $32   86-92 points

And that is it.  That is all I could find in the wine. It was delicious. It was very pretty. But without much acidity, it’s range of flavors was limited. I really can’t explain how the wine had so much fruit, with virtually no acidity or tannin, yet somehow it remained so remarkably balanced. It had good richness, and it never once approached being flabby.

“Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine.”

This wine was like a beautiful, delicate young girl, with really nothing to say. Very nice to be around, but you can’t talk politics or philosophy with her – maybe the most basic current events, but not much more. Did I kill this metaphor?  No, I don’t think you can really understand the dichotomy of this wine. This is a wine of great finesse, balance and elegance, with really lovely fruit. It’s like a beautiful top-flight Burgundy without the nose, or any complexity, really at all.

The 2009 Les Fontainilles is a very difficult wine to judge.  You can’t really throw a number at it, and say this is an 86 or a 92.  It is both of those scores depending on which angle you look at the wine.  It does some things magnificently well, and almost fails in other areas. It is both fascinating and perplexing.  I guess the bottom line is, would I buy this for $32?  The answer is yes; not only is it really elegant and finessed, it delicious. And most importantly, all this rigorous head scratching makes it well worth the price.

The Winemaker, Anne Gros

anne Gros pic   For those not familiar with Anne Gros, she is one of the real succ ess stories of Burgundy. In 1988, at 22 years old, she took over her father’s failing Domaine Francois Gros. He had health issues, but really, he had never made the quality of wines his brother, the famed Jean Gros, produced. She was almost instantly a star. By the mid-nineties, her tiny production of Richebourg, Echezeaux and Clos Vougeot were highly sought after, and prices were going up. That was twenty years ago, now she is married to another vigneron, Jean-Paul Tollot, of Domaine Tollot-Beaut in Chorey-Les-Beaune, and together they have three children.  Anne now wanted a new challenge.  So they began a long search for a new project. It had to be somewhere else, and it had to have soil similar to Burgundy’s marl and limestone. The search lead them to Minervois, and a property with very old vines.

The Vineyard, “Les Fontainilles”

This vineyard, Les Fontainilles, is a north-facing, bowl-shaped, 7 acre vineyard of flaky, grey sediment-soil, the French refer to as Gres. The vines were planted between the 1960s and the 1980s, predominately to Grenache, although Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault are grown there also. Half the wine is aged in wood, the other half in stainless, preserving all that fresh cherry and raspberry fruit. A good description (by Robert Parker) of the project can be found here. The property is in the far South of Minervois, right on the St Chinian border in a tiny village called Cazelles.

And All of the Unanswered Questions….

So, there are a multitude of questions that revolve around how to judge such a wine.  The winemaking style clearly has transformed what we expect from these varietals, and from the region in general.  That said, the style is non-interventionist, and done with a much more delicate hand. Clearly, this wine was not acidulated or manipulated in any way. Presumably Anne and Jean-Paul believe acidification of grape must is a tremendous mistake (as many top winemakers do), this is intended to be a true expression of the vintage and the terroir. Has it succeeded in this?

The key question, I suppose, is should you treat the grapes of the Sud (Southern France) as you would Pinot Noir? Is Anne Gros revealing the true nature of the grapes and the vineyard? Is she really getting everything out of these grapes that she should in order to tell the whole story of the land and the grapes? This is a beautiful wine, with a lovely finesse, but it doesn’t really have much in the way of complexity or verve, and these are serious nagging issues. Is she leaving those qualities in the must? The alcohol is 14.5 percent, so these grapes were ripe.  Did they pick them too late, forsaking the grape’s natural acidity?  It wouldn’t seem so, since there were no signs of over-ripeness to the fruit character. But the fact remains, that with Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards needing attention five hours away, these Minervois vines may not get that minute-by-minute attention they might need in a hot year like 2009. The winemakers simply can’t be in two places at once.

And then, there is this question: if you break the mold of a regional wines typicity, such as Gros and Tollot have done, will others realize it as brilliance and embrace the approach, or will they walk away? This is always a risk that the visionaries and the rule-breakers contend with. These are great gambles, that pay off for some like Piero Antinori when he bottled Tiganello as a Vino di Tavola and so many others who have done things the way they think is best, regardless of convention. These are risks that make reputations and change the industry. But for every maverick that succeeds brilliantly, and are vindicated by their position, there a countless others who fail quietly.

Anne Gros and Jean-Paul have staked a significant energy and money into this project, and are relying on their position as great Burgundy producers to help sell their wines, which are definately Burgundian in style.  It is a tough road for sure, one that a fellow Burgundian has traveled. According to an article by Jancis Robinson MW, the well-regarded Jean-Marie Fourrier from Gevrey-Chambertin, had bought a winery in Faugerers, nearer the coast. His experiment resulted in having to walk away from the venture after just a few years. Advice he would give to other Anne and Jean-Paul, whom he had never met?

Spend lots of time with local people from the Languedoc as they can be very helpful – or they can make your life much harder. When you run two businesses 400 miles from each other, the temptation is to work, work and work with the obligation of success. But don’t forget that you are considered a foreigner by the local people. 

This is not to say that Anne Gros is on the wrong course. But as delicious as this wine is, it raises more questions than tasting it can answer. I am interested to see if the 2010s will have better retained their structure, being a year that was cooler, and the wines from 2010 generally had much brighter acids.  For me, that would be the deciding factor. But when a wine is this delicate in a hot, fruit driven year that is marked by most wines being massively concentrated and heavily structured, it’s hard to imagine what will come next.  I may get to taste a couple of the 2010’s in a couple of weeks time. We’ll see then.  I personally can’t wait to read the next chapter.   Dean

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